Review: Salma Hayek’s passion project brings ‘Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet’ to beautiful life

One of the highlights of the Cannes Film Festival for me this summer was a presentation of selected clips from “Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet,” an ambitious animated film that adapts one of the most beloved works of poetry of the 20th Century, and I wrote in that piece that I hoped the final film would live up to the segments that I saw out of context.

It is safe to say that is the case.

Ultimately, this is a very simple, very direct film. There are plenty of movies playing at this festival that want to make you work for whatever meaning you take from them, but this feels like the opposite. “Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet” has been designed to be as emotionally direct as possible, easy to understand and very, very clear in its storytelling, and the result is a film that I would feel comfortable showing to my children but that manages to offer up some remarkably complex and adult ideas in a way that makes them seem fresh, no matter how familiar you are with the book.

Since May, I've spent a fair amount of time with the book. I knew it before then, but it had been years since I'd picked it up, and this time around, I found something much richer and much more profound waiting for me. This time, I was open to the book in a way I'm not sure I was when I read it as a young man. This time, instead of it feeling like someone telling me the way things are supposed to be and me shaking it off because of some perceived young man's superiority, I felt like I was reading real wisdom that I can recognize now because of the various scars and sweetnesses I've accumulated in the twenty years between readings.

In the book, Almustafa is a poet who is beloved in the city of Orphalese, and after twelve long years, he prepares to catch a boat that will take him home. Before he can leave, the entire city comes out to see him, and a seeress named Almitra asks him to share some thoughts before he goes, leading to a series of twenty-six poems on very specific topics like love, marriage, work, joy and sorrow, laws, freedom, friendship, and more. Much of what he says is self-evident, but the way he says it in the book is what gives it such power. Gibran was a beautiful writer, and the book is full of truly powerful imagery.

It's not a huge narrative, though, and so when Salma Hayek began putting together a team to try to bring the movie to life, one of the first things they had to do was figure out how to make that work as the framework for the movie. To that end, Mustafa has now become a political dissident, a poet whose work moved the people of Orphalese to begin to question the way things are. He's spent seven years under house arrest, seeing almost no one except for Kamila (Hayek), his housekeeper. He's still writing and painting, but the work goes unseen. Finally, the authorities decide something must be done and the local Sergeant (Alfred Molina) comes to tell Mustafa that he'll be taken to a ship in the harbor, where he is to leave Orphalese and never return in exchange for his freedom. There's another darker plan afoot, though, one that only Kamila's daughter knows about. And since Almitra (Quvenzhane Wallis) hasn't spoken since the death of her father several years earlier, it may not be possible for anyone to save Mustafa.

The structure allows for a number of natural digressions as Mustafa seems happy to discuss any subject. For example, Almitra is a bit of a wild child, and at one point, Kamila complains that she can't control her. Mustafa tells her of course she can't, since our children are not ours to control. This leads into Nina Paley's segment of the film, set to a lovely Damien Rice song that uses Gibran's words as lyrics:

“Your children are not your children
They are the sons and daughters of Life's longing for itself
They come through you but not from you
And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts
For they have their own thoughts
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you.”

And as Gibran describes the relationship, Paley's animation interprets it as literal, laid over these beautiful mandalas.

“You are the bows from which your children as living arrows are sent forth.”

Much of what Gibran wrote is the sort of thing that seems to make innate sense when you read it, but it is the articulation of those ideas that makes it such a powerful and enduring work. Of course I want my children to grow and become independent people, people who have their own feelings and thoughts and ambitions and dreams. I try to lay out as much knowledge for them as I can and as much moral and emotional guidance, but they are going to be their own people, and I cannot force them to take any of it. Beyond that, I have learned from both of them. My younger son loves with a force unlike anything I've ever witnessed. His heart dwarfs mine, and I strive every day to learn from him, to love like him. My older son has an open fearlessness about people that I try to emulate as I move through this world as well.

From each segment, we come back to Mustafa's story, and we move further towards that inevitable showdown when he is offered a simple choice: renounce his words and all of his ideas and be allowed to board that ship, or stand behind the things he's said as he stands in front of a firing line.

When Salma Hayek began the long journey of trying to get this property produced as an animated film, I doubt she fully understood just how difficult it would be. Animation is so often thought of as only a children's medium, and while I think the wraparound story here has been crafted so that it's really told from Almitra's point of view, the segments themselves aren't childish at all.

One of them, Joann Sfar's segment on marriage, is illustrated as a beautiful tango in which the space between the dancers is as important as the places where they connect, a stunning and simple visual accompaniment to the segment on love, directed by Tomm Moore. Neither of them deals with anything children are going to fully understand, but they are visually entrancing, and that's true of each of the segment's. There's a lovely early bit by Michal Socha on freedom in which people are portrayed first as birdcages holding in beautiful flocks, and then as tangled strings that hold them to a tree. It looks like it's water color and pastel chalks, but it's all CG, and it sets a high bar for the rest of the segments in terms of surreal beauty. Bill Plympton brings his trademark visual style to the film, but with a sincerity and an emotional directness I'm not used to in his work. Each of the directors works in a radically different style, while the wraparound, directed and written by Roger Allers, is gorgeous hand-animation in the style of vintage Disney, a safe choice that should help to draw in audiences who aren't used to the wildly experimental.

During the final stretch of the film, the gentleman seated in front of me at the screening began to sob, openly, so hard that his chair shook. I'm not sure what set him off in particular, but I suspect his reaction was as intensely personal as possible, and that's sort of the beauty of the film. In many ways, it is a mirror. What you get out of each of the segments will depend largely on where you are in your life, who you are right now. I am grappling with divorce, with fears about where I am in my life, with difficult feelings about my work, and I am also diving headlong into new love, and I'm raising my sons in a world that freaks me out, and I am trying to make sense of all of this right now.

It felt like “Kahlil Gibran's The Prophet” was speaking directly to me in scene after scene, explaining how to be happy, how to be whole. It didn't hurt that the poems, each beautiful and dense and rich, are all read by Liam Neeson as Mustafa. Having that warm brogue of his wrapped around you reading poetry for 100 minutes is like laying on the most beautiful pillow, safe and comfortable, making it a master stroke of casting.

Here's hoping this gets picked up for distribution soon, and that more audiences get a chance to bask in what amounts to a poetic “Fantasia,” determined to push the definition of what is a mainstream animated film, and largely successful in doing so.